After his Iran team defeated Uruguay 1-0 in a friendly match on Sunday, Sardar Azmoun posted the following on Instagram: “Because of the restrictive laws placed on us in the national team I am not supposed to speak out… I know I risk being sent home, but I can’t take it anymore! You will never be able to erase this from your conscience. Shame on you! You kill easily. Long live Iranian women!
The allusion was apparent. As with many Iranians, Azmoun was outraged by the police response to the demonstrations that erupted across Iran in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s murder while she was being held after being arrested by the so-called “morality police,” from the capital city of Teheran to the remotest rural towns. It was a 22-year-old woman. She was informed that she wasn’t donning her headscarf, or hijab, in a suitable manner, according to her brother, who was present when she was detained.
With more than 5 million followers, Azmoun watched his message quickly become viral. As my colleague Mark Ogden documented last week, it added fuel to the fire of those seeking change in a nation—and a national team—already on edge and playing in shielded, almost surreal surroundings. Prior to kickoff on Monday night’s friendly match between Iran and Senegal, which ended in a 1-1 tie, the Iranian players made a point of leaving the locker room wearing black jackets, which many observers saw to be a protest gesture.
He added in a recent statement: “I have to apologize to the players of the national team because I caused my dear friends to be annoyed some supporters even insulted the national team. This was not fair in any way and it was my mistake. I blame myself and I am ashamed in front of all the members of the national team and the technical staff who caused the order and peace of the team to be disrupted.”
What is undeniable is that people who maintain that politics has no place in sports are someplace between denial and the ostriches’ head hole. It has long since arrived and is already here. Simply put, few endeavors, especially international football, attract as much attention or provide a larger stage. Nothing is more significant than the World Cup, in which Iran will compete in November in Qatar. They are grouped with Wales, the United States, and England in this group.
What happens when Iran plays England in their World Cup opener on November 21 is the big question mark. What do Azmoun and his teammates do when they step onto the pitch with billions of people watching around the world, assuming they haven’t suddenly changed their minds (he was one of only two who voiced their views so clearly on social media, but many others completely shut out their profiles in solidarity)?
And how does the government respond if the protests aren’t put down — you hope not by terrible government repression, but by increasing awareness, tolerance, and respect for women’s rights? What is done by the host country, Qatar, a neighbor and former close ally of Iran? Finally, but most importantly, how does FIFA respond?
The last two are the easiest to understand, so let’s start with them. Like Iran, Qatar is a Muslim nation headed by a royal family that has come under fire for violating human rights, notably in relation to LGBTQ issues and the rights of migrant workers. However, unlike Iran, Qatar does not have “morality police” and Muslim women are not required to wear headscarves (though many do so by choice or custom). Iran has vowed to be hospitable and inclusive, thus it is unable to force Qatar to take any action and even less so when the world is watching (at least for the duration of the tournament).
Regarding FIFA, they do have laws that forbid sayings, statements, or behaviors that are political, religious, or personal in character. But as societal mores have evolved through time, what was once a strict position has loosened. FIFA said they “believe in freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good.” when Norway and Germany showed a human rights message directly at Qatar a year ago. Following the passing of George Floyd, players started kneeling or showing their solidarity for demonstrators. Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, stated that the players should be greeted with “applause and not punishment.”
It’s difficult to imagine action being taken, especially given that the captains of nine European nations competing in the World Cup will wear armbands that include a rainbow flag and the phrase “One Love.” Although the armbands don’t specifically criticize Qatar for how it treats migrant workers or for ensuring the safety of LGBTQ populations, this news release from the English Football Association leaves no room for mistakes as to what the message is.
This leaves the players and the Iranian government with a huge question mark hovering over them. Coach Carlos Queiroz selected 27 players for the last two friendlies, 16 of whom presently play club football outside of Iran, and another seven who have previously done so. Because they have firsthand knowledge of an alternative way of life, it is not unexpected that many people connect with the demonstrators and their demands for women’s rights. This makes “Team Melli,” as the Iranian national team is known, a possible challenge to the more conservative sections of the Iranian regime, along with their enormous popularity and the enormous platform it offers them.
On the one hand, the vast majority have ties to Iran through family, friends, and professional relationships, thus taking a public stance there could have negative effects. On the other hand, it might tilt the scale favor a more equal and less oppressive society for women, and they might never again have such a public platform. Team Melli is under these pressures six weeks after the World Cup. Just don’t say that social media and politics have no role in football. That ship had ago left port.